The Big Red One (USA, 1980 / 2004)

The-Big-Red-One-PosterDirected by: Samuel Fuller.  I’m not sure how I feel about this one. Fuller is proving to be a real tough nut to crack, since he confronts me with my unresolved opinions on the divide between low art and high art. As much as I initially found it appealing to tear down that divide, the more I see how mainstream it is to question that divide, the more suspicious I get, prompting me to question the questioning of that divide. I mean, who’s to say that Miley Cyrus isn’t just as valuable and intelligent as Mozart? To make an intelligent retort: Fuck that shit. I guess that’s an argument for another post entirely, but Fuller really sits uncomfortably in my cinematic craw because he doesn’t clearly fit into either category, and he seems to be embraced both as a low-art giant and as a high-art stalwart. As far as all of that goes, I think a film-by-film assessment would be a good idea, as with every director. And whereas I would tip White Dog into the camp of “bad”—generally half-cooked dialogue, ham-fisted and clumsy treatment of complex material—I would tip this one into the camp of “good”, generally. Whatever else follows, the entire opening sequence of Lee Marvin on that desolate WWI battlefield with that bizarre and offputting wooden eyeless statue of Christ looming overhead, intercut with the close ups of the wild horse, breathing loudly and laboriously, put together is one of the most strangely beautiful, impenetrably obvious thematic devices illustrated in a film I’ve seen, and it makes this one of the artiest War films of all time.  Of course, if I’m just going by clumsy, embarrassing dialogue and B-movie acting, corny foreign accents, really obvious and cheaply done ADR voice-overs everywhere, and liberal use of war movie cliches, then this is certainly a “bad” movie. This has none of the bleak realism of even Saving Private Ryan (which, 15 years later already, still looks pretty damn fresh and gritty). This doesn’t have the distant veneer of black-and-white, classical Hollywood to cushion its lack of realism either, like The Longest Day. This probably has more in common with Platoon (which I didn’t particularly like) in the sense that it’s loosely based on the filmmaker’s own lived wartime experience and a central character is modeled on the director. And a look at the protagonist of each will give you a good idea of what kind of territory you’re in, comparing the centrality of Charlie Sheen’s morally superior protagonist as an Oliver Stone stand-in to the cartoonish Sam Fuller stand-in, a cigar in his mouth in literally every fucking shot he’s in, and he’s not even the main character, just another one of the cartoon cut-outs to float around the gravity of the nameless Sargent (the towering Lee Marvin, in perhaps his best role since Point Blank). Sam Fuller is, if nothing else, a remarkably singular character, and he made films truly like nobody else made films (and this is just going on two films so far, so I can’t wait to fill in that filmography a bit more this year). The thing that’s so frustrating and fascinating about this film is that, for all of the detractions I listed above about the acting and the dialogue and the rest of it, this is overall a really compelling and memorable film. (The question of “this” film is a big long topic too, as the film I saw is the Reconstruction, restored to Fuller’s original vision after the 1980 theatrical release was brutally butchered by the studios—one of those old yarns.) It reminded me continually of Bertolucci’s staggering 1900, which also had a very perplexing and stunted confrontational dialogue and characterization, but wrapped all of that apparent amateurishness around some big themes. This film treats war in an elusive way, straddling the lines of standard patriotic solider-hype propaganda and simultaneously putting brackets around the whole thing as a camp exercise. Maybe that’s what it is: War is real, it’s gritty, it’s hell, and it’s also a show, a camp spectacle coded in immature, boyish value systems and shot through with a hint of cold, dead, random, Godless, man-made violence. This is as good a thing as you’ll see Lee Marvin do, and it’s definitely as good a thing as you’ll see Mark Hamill do. Whether or not it’s as good a thing as Sam Fuller did remains to be determined as I fill in that filmography.

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One response to “The Big Red One (USA, 1980 / 2004)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2014 | Offhand Reviews·

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